Taxes | Proper 24

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Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed. (CEB)

Taxes

Election Day is nearly upon us. Just when we thought we could avoid the confluence of religion and politics, Jesus goes and says something like this: something that reminds us that religion and politics do intersect, and that we do have responsibilities to both God and the state in which we live.

And yet, Jesus’ response to his false flatterers cannot be easily simplified. This text requires careful reading because it is neither an endorsement of uncritical patriotism, nor a sanctioning of thoughtless obedience to or support of our civil authorities.

One of the matters this encounter between Jesus and the Herodians and Pharisees forces us to consider is the right relationship between obedience to civil authorities and/or the state, and obedience to God. Some Christians, though well-meaning, take Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7 to mean that we ought not criticize governmental authority. Paul says, “There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God, and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God. So anyone who opposes the authority is standing against what God has established” (Romans 13:1b-2a CEB). Some take Paul’s words as a blanket statement that God unequivocally backs the government at all times and, if we oppose the government, then we stand in opposition to God.

Paul’s words can only mean that, however, when we take them out of their context in the letter to the Romans as a whole. Paul’s only concern in that passage was for Christians in Rome to pay their taxes rather than resist paying them as some Jewish revolutionaries advocated. Paul wrote, “You should also pay taxes for the same reason, because the authorities are God’s assistants, concerned with this very thing. So pay everyone what you owe them. Pay the taxes you owe, pay the duties you are charged, give respect to those you should respect, and honor those you should honor” (Romans 13:6-7 CEB).

Paul would never suggest that Christian faithfulness requires an uncritical obedience to human authority or government. On the contrary, Paul knew Holy Scripture too well for anyone to twist his words to mean uncritical obedience and unwavering support. God sent the prophets to critique and challenge the powers and authorities of the world. Faithful people are called—all the time—to challenge power when that power opposes God. We are called to speak truth to power.

Moses’ whole game was challenging Pharaoh because of the Egyptian king’s harsh treatment of human beings. Most of the prophets criticized and challenged governmental and religious authorities. John the Baptizer was murdered because he criticized King Herod. Jesus was murdered because he dared to critique the religious authorities, and they didn’t like it. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered for daring to speak God’s truth to power.

Criticism of government authority, and resistance against abuses of authority and misuse of power is a vast part of Biblical tradition. There is no getting around the fact that political activism that stands up for the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the refugee, the immigrant, the have-nots, the powerless, and the disenfranchised is Biblical and faithful activity.

Contrary to one particularly dangerous strain of contemporary Evangelical Christian thought, God does not ordain and bless all secular rulers in some special way. There are people who believe that our government leaders, especially, are anointed by God. It did happen once. When King Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire let the Jews return home from captivity, he was identified with the title Messiah (c.f. Isaiah 45:1).

But one instance out of thousands does not suggest God’s blanket approval and/or special blessing of all government rulers. When we think that way, we run the risk of idolatry. To render unto Caesar does not mean that Caesar always does the will of God. If that were the case, God wouldn’t have bothered sending prophets to constantly call human authorities on the carpet. Oftentimes, rulers, authorities, and policies require critique.

The line that faithful people walk recognizes the distinction between politics, which includes paying taxes and our responsibilities to public life, and political partisanship. Partisanship in politics leads to the very uncritical obedience and loyalty to human powers that faithful people must avoid. Unflinching loyalty to a party or a system delves into idolatry. For those who claim Jesus Christ as their Lord, who desire to love God to the full, our loyalty must reside wholly in God rather than a human party or system.

A group of Pharisees and Herodians approached Jesus with honeyed words. It’s ironic that their phony righteousness and insincere speech speaks the truth about Jesus. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality” (Matthew 22:16b NRSV). “So, tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17 CEB).

Now, here’s the trick to the trick question. The Herodians were likely Jews who supported King Herod. King Herod’s authority came from the Roman Emperor. These Jews, therefore, likely approved of paying taxes to the Emperor. If Jesus answered that it was lawful to pay the tax to Caesar, then he would prove himself a loyalist to Rome. But, many Jews, especially the poor, resented this tax. They lived in a land occupied by an empire that had invaded and conquered them. To answer yes would have shocked and outraged the majority of the Jewish population but satisfied the Herodian and Roman authorities.

The Pharisees disapproved of the tax, which makes them unlikely partners with the Herodians. But, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, even if they’re my enemies, too. The Roman coin used to pay the tax, a silver denarius, was itself an example of blasphemy to most Jews. It had a graven image of Caesar Tiberius on it. The inscription on the coin said, “Tiberias Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” The coin ascribed divinity to the emperor’s father, and the Emperor was considered the high priest of the Roman Imperial Cult.

Obviously, many Jews understood this as idolatry and a violation of God’s Law. If Jesus had, for these religious grounds, said that the Law did not allow people to pay such a tax, then he would have reinforced his popular support among most of the Jewish people, and been labeled an agitator and seditionist against King Herod, Emperor Tiberius, and the Roman state.

But Jesus was aware of their malice, their evil intentions, and he turned the table on them. He called them hypocrites and asked why they were putting him to the test. Then, Jesus asked to see a coin because, it would seem, he didn’t carry one himself. So, one of his opponents pulled a denarius coin out of their purse and showed it to Jesus.

Some interpreters suggest that this act further exposes Jesus’ opponents as hypocrites because they had the idolatrous coin on their person, whereas Jesus did not. The problem with that assertion is that it assumes a Pharisee was the one carrying the coin. But we don’t know whether the bearer of the coin was a Pharisee or a Herodian because the text doesn’t say. What we do know is that it was unlikely that a Pharisee would have carried such a coin.

The Herodians, however, probably would not have had a problem with carrying one. So, it would not have been a big deal for a Herodian to pull this coin out of their purse. But a Herodian pulling such a coin from their purse surely would have given the Pharisees pause. It would have reminded the Pharisees that they had allied themselves with those they considered blasphemers and violators of God’s Law. They would have remembered how low they had stooped to ally with the Herodians. They would have been confronted with how they had compromised their adherence to the Law and the very beliefs they so dearly held. That is what would have exposed them as hypocrites.

And that’s what can expose us as hypocrites, too, isn’t it? We are not above similar rationalization. We are not above putting our desires ahead of God’s and convincing ourselves that what we want is what God wants.

Jesus simply asked whose likeness and inscription the denarius coin bore. When they replied that both belonged to Caesar, Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21b CEB). When Christians live out the gospel of Jesus Christ, we cannot avoid political responsibilities and commitments. To be clear, by political, I mean our responsibilities to our public and communal life together. But that does not mean we claim partisan politics or partisan ideology as God’s will. The moment we do that, we become idolators.

For Christians, to give to Caesar and to give to God is not a choice between two equal options. We belong to God, not to Caesar. Even if we belong—as in have associated with—a political party, we still belong to God. Our loyalty to God and to God’s will for human life must always come first. I have encountered people who seem so wrapped up in their political party of choice, and the authority figures of it, that their sense of identity and self would be compromised if they admitted their party leaders did something wrong.

We do not belong to Caesar. We do not belong to partisan political claims, ideologies, or systems. We do not belong to our possessions, to our careers, or to the nation in which we hold citizenship. We cannot give Caesar more than what Caesar is due. We cannot forge such a relationship with partisan politics that we’re forced to figure out how to fit God into Caesar’s pocket. Our greatest loyalty is to the One who made us. Our highest devotion and allegiance is to the One to whom we wholly, completely—in body and soul—ultimately belong.

The denarius coin bore the image and inscription of Caesar. Every human being in the world bears the image of God. We are God’s beloved children. And so are those people who are not citizens of the United States. Jesus reminds us that we should give to God what belongs to God. That means we live out our baptismal identity by giving God our lives, our devotion, our selves, our allegiance, our faith, our energy, our everything. To give to God what belongs to God means we fulfill the Law through complete devotion to God, and we express our devotion to God by showing genuine love for our neighbor, no matter who they are, what religion they practice, or where they’re from.

This is the only way we can fulfill the two greatest commandments of the Law as Jesus describes them: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matthew 22:37b-40 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Confidence | Proper 22

Worship Video:

Philippians 3:4b-14

4b If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:

5 I was circumcised on the eighth day.

I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.

I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.

With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.

6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.

With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.

7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.

12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. (CEB)

Confidence

Philippians 3:4b-14 presents one section of Paul’s argument against a group of other Christians who held certain beliefs with which Paul disagreed. It’s important for us to understand the events that have already happened in the background. The first Christians were Jews who came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah promised by God, and that God raised Jesus from the dead. So, these Jews were baptized.

But these Jewish Christians who claimed belief in Jesus still practiced Judaism. They still circumcised their male children on the eighth day. They still followed the dietary restrictions. They still strove to live in obedience to the Torah. They still observed the Sabbath on Saturday even as they celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday when they broke bread together.

The Jewish believers in Jesus could easily have continued on as a Christian sect within Judaism forever. And, they probably would have done just that had the Holy Spirit not created a theological mess by dumping itself all over a bunch of Gentiles in Caesarea. All of a sudden, the Jewish church had to wrestle with all kinds of unpleasant questions. They knew the Holy Spirit was doing something unexpected. And they were left with the problem of figuring out how to make the impossible possible. (No big deal, right?).

Some of the questions they had to figure out included the following. What did these Gentiles have to do to be saved? Are there parts of Jewish practice that Gentiles needed to follow to be saved? Do they have to practice dietary restrictions to be saved? Do all the males need to be circumcised?

The Holy Spirit acted rashly, after all, and poured itself out on these Gentiles before any of the Gentiles even thought about converting to Judaism. The Holy Spirit came upon these Gentiles apart from the law, so what of the law are they required to follow? Does God’s bewildering action mean that God has accepted the Gentiles apart from the law? To some of those Jewish Christians, this notion was a theological impossibility. Yet, it happened! God forced the church—a Jewish church—to rethink its theology and redraw its lines of who was in and who was out.

If we were there right now—if we were part of that first group of Jews who believed in Jesus—we would be arguing about who God finds acceptable, what in the world had just happened, where this new thing was coming from, when God suddenly decided to move in a very odd new direction, why God would endow these Gentiles with the Spirit (which left no doubt in anyone’s mind that God had, of all things, accepted them), and also how God could accept Gentiles because, for Pete’s sake, they’re Gentiles! One does not simply invite Gentiles to church. Everyone knows they’re unclean. We’ll probably have to sanitize the pews they sit in.

We know from other New Testament texts that there were some Jewish Christians who argued that the only proper way to handle the situation was for Gentiles to convert to Judaism. “Some people came down from Judea teaching the family of believers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved’” (Acts 15:1 CEB). The teaching of this group of Jewish Christians really upset the church in Antioch. Suddenly, none of those Gentile believers knew if they were really loved by God and included in God’s promise of salvation. These Gentiles believers had found joy, and this group of Jewish Christians put everything in doubt. Paul and Barnabas took the matter to Jerusalem so the council of elders—who were all Jews—could render a decision on the matter. If you thought the Presidential debate was bad, read Acts chapter 15. It was a heated.

In the end, the Jerusalem council decided that conversion to Judaism—including circumcision—was not a requirement for Gentiles to be saved. But there were some Jewish Christians who absolutely disagreed with the council’s conclusion, and they were not going to surrender their position. We know that Paul went on several missionary journeys, and we know that this group who opposed the Jerusalem Council’s judgment went on missionary journeys of their own. In fact, it appears they followed right behind Paul and caused all kinds of trouble in the churches he started, especially in the region of Galatia (c.f. Galatians 2, 5).

So, this text is really a segment—only a slice—of Paul’s argument about what was probably the first major internal controversy the church faced. Philippians 3:4b-14 appears twice in the Revised Common Lectionary. Both times, verses 1-4a are omitted. I think the reason why the verses get left out is because they include some language that doesn’t sound very nice to our ears. Just listen to verse 2 where Paul wrote, “Watch out for the dogs. Watch out for the evil-workers. Watch out for the mutilators” (Philippians 3:3 my trans), which is what Paul called those Jewish Christians who insisted that circumcision was necessary for Gentiles to be saved.

(And remember that Paul, himself, boasts that he was circumcised on the eighth day of his life in verse 5).

It’s possible that Paul is bringing Scripture into play with his reference to dogs and evildoers. Psalm 59 says, “Deliver me from evildoers; save me from the bloodthirsty. Look at how they lie in ambush for my life! Powerful people are attacking me, LORD—but not because of any error or sin of mine… They come back every evening, growling like dogs, prowling around the city. See what they belch out with their mouths: swords are between their lips! Who can listen to them?” (Psalm 59:2-3, 6-7 CEB).

Paul had good reason to be angry. The Christian Jews who insisted that Christian Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be saved were some of Paul’s bitterest opponents. They undid some of Pauls’ work. They spoke against Paul with personal attacks. They assaulted his credibility, slandered his character, and downplayed his claim to apostleship. And they used scare-tactics to force Gentiles to follow their requirements.

In this part of Paul’s argument, he uses himself as an example to convince the Philippians that he—a Jewish Christian—was right, and the Jewish Christians who opposed him—who insisted on circumcision—were wrong. Paul starts by presenting himself to the Gentile Philippian Christians as more Jewish than any of his Jewish Christian opponents. He gives us a clinic in boasting about one’s self.

“If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6 CEB).

B.C. is a designation that splits our reckoning of time. We mark what happened B.C. and what happened after that moment-in-time differently. We number the B.C. years backwards while the A.D. years march forward. With the coming of Jesus, the church recognized that a significant alteration in human existence itself had occurred. The way human beings might relate to the God who created the heavens and the earth had shifted. Those who could have a relationship with God—and how that could happen—changed.

Paul experienced his own transitional moment-in-time when he encountered the Risen Lord while on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians in that city. For Saul of Tarsus, his understanding of righteousness and how people of all backgrounds are accepted by God changed Because of Christ: a different kind of B.C.

Before Christ, Paul’s sense of rightness before the Creator of the Universe focused on the quality of his own observance of the law. Pharisees attempted to follow stringent interpretations of every part of the law. Never mind that the Torah, itself, was purely a gift from God that was given to a people whom this God liberated from slavery. Before Christ, Paul saw himself as righteous because of his own efforts to fulfill the law.

Because of Christ, Paul recognized that all his assets and efforts at maintaining his personal righteousness counted for nothing. Paul, in economic terms, chalked it all up as a loss. Because of Christ, Paul found a righteousness that reflected the original intent and purpose of the law-as-gift: a righteousness that came from God, not from his own observance of the law. Paul describes knowing Christ as superior to all of his past strivings. “In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:9-11 CEB).

When I was a student at Evansville North High School, I ran cross-country, and I ran track. The nearest I ever got to a sprint was in track where one of my races was the 800. It’s a hard run because you’re nearly at a sprint for two laps around the track. It was a burst of hard striving, and then it was over. But Paul suggests the Christian faith is more like cross-country, or even a marathon race. My cross-country coach described a cross-country race as doing LSD. NOT the drug! We ran Long, Slow, Distance.

The goal toward which Paul ran was the resurrection of the dead. He stopped looking behind and kept his eyes on the true prize. What happened behind him didn’t matter. To know Christ is to share in Christ and the righteousness that comes from God based on faith.

For many of us it’s not easy to grasp this before-and-after conversion experience that Paul describes. Many of us, myself included, are cradle-Christians. I had a Baptist colleague ask me several times on the first day we met to tell him about my conversion experience. And I kept answering, “I grew up in the church.” He didn’t understand what I meant, so he proceeded to ask me if I was saved because, if I didn’t have a firecracker moment when I knew I had accepted Jesus, I couldn’t really be saved. I finally had to explain, Look, I grew up in the church. There has never, in the history of my conscious life, been a moment where I did not believe in Jesus Christ, when I did not know with absolute faith that God loves me, when I did not put my full trust in God’s grace. I grew up in the church!

(For the record, I still don’t know that my Baptist colleague was ever convinced of my salvation, but it was never him I needed to convince).

So, I get that Paul’s grand conversion experience of blinding light and a voice from heaven might not be our story. But God doesn’t care. We don’t need a profound story to have real, active faith. Even if we don’t have a Before Christ like Paul did, we all have a Because of Christ. Our Because of Christ is the faith we live now. Alongside Paul and every faithful disciple of God’s Son—past and present, we pursue the same prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.

Whatever sewer trash lies behind us in our past, Jesus Christ has made each one of us his very own. We belong to God, and we are both accepted and forgiven. Because of Christ—because we belong to Jesus—God loves us, and God accepts us.

We might as well get used to it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Letter to the Congregation: 02 October 2020

Dear members and friends of First UMC,

Posey County has recorded a significant spike in COVID-19 cases this week. Over the past five days, we have had about 80 positive cases. Twenty-two of those were from today as of 3:00 p.m., with more expected by midnight.

After consulting with local medical professionals, I have made the decision to cancel our in-person worship for the next two Sundays (October 04 and 11). We will re-evaluate for the 18th.We will live-stream our worship services to our church Facebook page at 9:30 a.m. The service will then be uploaded to our YouTube page by noon. You can find a link to these resources on our church website: www.firstumcmv.com.

October 11 was to be our Consecration Sunday. If you have completed your pledge cards for 2021, please mail them to the church office. We may reschedule our Consecration celebration for a later date, but the Finance Committee will still need your pledge cards.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. or concerns. These are strange times, indeed, but we will get through this pandemic together.

Yours in Christ,
Rev. Christopher Millay
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P.S. To put the current situation into perspective, the total number of cases for Posey County as of 3:00 p.m. on October 02 is 403 (if my count is right). About 80 of those positive cases have occurred over the past 4-5 days. So, nearly TWENTY PERCENT of all positive COVID-19 cases through this entire pandemic happened THIS WEEK. Please stay safe out there, everyone.

Laborers | Proper 20

Worship Video

Matthew 20:1-16

1 “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard.

3 “Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ 5 And they went.

“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’

7 “‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.

“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ 9 When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’ 13 “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ 16 So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.” (CEB)

Laborers

Sometimes, the teachings of Jesus can cause us to wonder just what kind of values the kingdom of heaven has. What kingdom looks like the one Jesus talks about? Whether we work for a corporation, in government, at a non-profit, in the home, or for our own entrepreneurship, this parable tends to grate against our ideas of what is just, and our very definition of fairness. God, it seems, is a terrible bookkeeper! This parable doesn’t make any sense in our twenty-first century, capitalist, market-economy context.

Those who worked longer than others at the same job should get paid more than those others who worked less. We usually want people to be treated fairly. But the landowner in the parable isn’t fair with his employees. He doesn’t act justly by paying those who only worked an hour the same wage as those who worked all day. It’s not fair that the landowner treated the workers equally for unequal work. We automatically sympathize with the workers who arrived in the vineyard first and toiled all day in the hot sun. We agree that they have a legitimate beef with the landowner.

Another puzzling piece of this parable is how it is bracketed by similar-but-reversed sayings. The last verse of Matthew chapter 19 says, “But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first” (vs.30 CEB). Matthew 20:16 reverses the order: “So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last” (CEB). While the bracketing of these sayings makes it sound like the parable between them has something to do with how we rank ourselves, how we imagine life’s hierarchy should be ordered, or the sequence in which we arrived at our faith in God, the parable itself seems to focus more on God’s justice and grace.

In that sense, this parable is not unlike the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. The younger son squandered everything his father had given to him. The elder son stayed home, honored his father with faithful, hard work, and never disobeyed his father’s instructions. Yet, the younger son returned home, and the father threw a party. The elder son, who was busy faithfully working in the field, heard about the party—he didn’t even get an invitation—and he was furious at how unfair it was. After all, for all his faithfulness, he had never gotten so much as a young goat to celebrate with his friends.

Some part of us can sympathize with the elder son and with the workers who were hired to work first. We can relate to their grumbling. Although they agreed to the landowner’s terms, the workers who were hired first assumed and expected that they would be paid more after seeing how much the latecomers were paid. Assumptions and expectations can be dangerous things. In fact, there are a multitude of proverbs out there that address this. Assumptions are planned resentments. Expectations are premeditated resentments. Expectations are resentments waiting to happen. It’s magical thinking to believe that what we expect or assume will simply happen because we expect or assume it will happen. And when others don’t meet our assumptions and expectations of them, then we feel insulted, angry, and resentful. We basically set people up to fail, and we resent them for it. And our resentments often turn into grumbling.

That is, at least in part, what’s going on in this parable. The assumptions of the early workers, the expectations based on their own personal ideas of fairness, were unmet. So, they grumbled against the landowner. The assumptions of the workers stem from comparison of themselves with the latecomers. It is very much a part of human nature to compare ourselves with others. We do it all the time whether we realize it or not. How else can we know where we stand in anything except by comparison?

While some comparison can be healthy and motivate us to improve ourselves: to live healthier, to be better, to be kinder, to be a more faithful, or a more generous person, comparison with others can also lead us smack into the deadly-sin of envy. The tenth of the Ten Commandments addresses envy: “Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17 CEB). We usually trim it down to You shall not covet.

When we envy another person’s gifts, abilities, possessions, popularity, wealth, home, spouse, talents, or achievements, we really diminish our own. We forget the words of the Apostle James: “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all” (James 1:17 CEB).

What the early workers forgot—whoever they might be, however we might try to identify them—what they forgot was that the landowner gave them work. Before they were hired, every single one of them was unemployed. By the end of the day, those who were hired first had forgotten where they started, which was in the exact same predicament as those who were hired last. Instead of giving thanks that they had work, they grumbled about their lately developed, unrealized expectations for more. All they saw was their perception of unfairness rather than the daily bread represented by the coin in the palm of their hand.

The landowner’s response to the grumbling exposes their resentment as envy. “Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?” (Matthew 20:13-15 CEB). The Greek text says, “…or is your eye evil because I am good?”

Envy happens when the obviously good things our eyes see are, by our selfish thoughts, contorted into evil. Our unrealized expectations, presumptuous assumptions, and unhealthy comparisons drive us to resent goodness, itself. When our response should be gratefulness, the evil eye of our envy twists what should be our proper response into resentment, disappointment, and anger. You see, what the landowner did was good. Every worker that day walked away with their daily bread. Every. Single. One. But those who started the day early didn’t like that the landowner treated everyone the same. The complaint of the early workers to the landowner was, “You have made them equal to us” (Matthew 20:12b my trans.).

This fact suggests that main thrust of the parable is not only about our ideas of equality, fairness, or what is just. Really, the meat of this parable describes the gracious and undeserved grace of God. It doesn’t matter when we show up, when we start working, or how long we’ve been at it. God gives grace to all. God shows mercy to all. God acts generously toward all. In fact, our human understanding of fairness—of right and wrong—is often out of touch with God’s. The extravagant generosity God shows to everyone simply doesn’t compute. God’s generosity violates our human—and fallible—sense of fairness. “Is your eye evil because I am good?” (Matthew 20:15b my trans.).

This parable also exposes our sin of envy and jealousy. Jesus challenges our assumptions and expectations. Jesus dangles some unasked questions before us; questions that we need to consider. Can we learn to see through the eyes of God? Can we accept that our ideas of right and wrong, of what is just and unjust, are not necessarily one and the same with God’s? God’s understanding of these things does differ from ours, and that’s a very good thing.

Throughout Christian history, people have attempted to identify the different laborers who were hired to work in the vineyard. But I think Jesus invites us—challenges us—to examine ourselves honestly and see where we fit into the parable. Only when we’ve done so can we repent, accept God’s graciousness, and allow God to turn our pride, envy, anger, and hardness of heart into joy.

We desperately need to recognize that we are already the recipients of everything God has. Like the father told his elder son in the Prodigal Son parable, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found” (Luke 15:31-32 CEB).

God has the right to do what God wants with God’s own. The previously-unemployed people who were hired first agreed on their pay and received it. Those unemployed persons who were hired last were so desperate for work that they didn’t agree on a specific price. In the end and in the beginning, we are all supplicants to the mercy and grace of God. “As it is written, There is no righteous person, not even one” (Romans 3:10 CEB; c.f. Psalm 14:1; 53:1).

Whatever our expectations and assumptions of God and the kingdom of heaven might be, we will invariably find ourselves astounded, even scandalized, by the extravagant grace of this generous Lord. God doesn’t bow to our assumptions, nor will God be bound by our expectations.

Instead, the One who made heaven and earth, who sent the Son to save us and the Holy Spirit to comfort and guide us, reminds us that God’s way is a different way. When we see through God’s eyes, we realize that God really gathers all our piddly expectations, all of our pitiful assumptions in a heap, tosses them in the trash bin, lights that dumpster on fire, and proceeds to exceed them all. “So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last” (Matthew 20:16 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

From Your Heart | Proper 19

Worship Video:

Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. 23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. 25 Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. 26 But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 27 The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.

28 “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’

29 “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.

31 “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. 32 His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.

35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (CEB)

From Your Heart

The matter of forgiveness is something that Christians know we ought to do in theory, but we often struggle to put it into practice. I think part of our struggle with forgiving others is that we have certain misunderstandings about what forgiveness means and what it requires of us. At the heart of our imperative to forgive is God’s concern about how faithful people handle being wronged.  

The question Peter asks to initiate this parable followed Jesus teaching the disciples about community. He covered such topics as who the greatest of the kingdom of heaven are, welcoming others, the seriousness of our own sin, the respect we should show to others, how a shepherd would leave the ninety-nine to seek the one sheep that wondered off (because the restoration of individuals to the community of faith matters profoundly), and the process by which the church does the sometimes-public work of forgiving others.

Peter probably wants some clarification on what Jesus just taught. “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21b CEB). The number seven isn’t random. If his question was about clarification, then Peter is trying to show some generosity. The number seven has religious significance in that it suggests perfection. If Peter were to forgive someone seven times, that would be perfect forgiveness. It seems clear that Peter had a limitation in mind because Jesus responded, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22b CEB). Jesus’ answer blows Peter’s perfect forgiveness out of the water. Forgiveness should be such a part of what we do that our practice—the way we forgive others—must exceed perfection.

When we read this parable, we need to understand that there is an intentional thread of absurdity to it. Jesus uses hyperbole in many of his parables, so it’s not a surprise. He begins by saying, “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold” (Matthew 18:23-24 CEB). In Greek, the word used for the amount owed is talent. One talent, alone, is a massive sum. Ten-thousand talents is wealth beyond imagination.

In the Roman world, it would take a laborer approximately 6,000 days of paid work to earn a talent. If the worker only took one day off each week, they could earn a single talent of gold in just over 19 years. So, to earn ten-thousand talents of gold, a laborer would only have to put in a paltry 60,000,000 workdays. Accounting for one day off per week and no sick-days, that’s just a hair over 191,693 years.

But, if the laborer wanted to shave some time off that span, then they could skip all their days off and squeeze their 60-million workdays into 164,383.5 years to earn their ten-thousand bags of gold. If the servant started working full-time at age 12, they would have to live almost 4,000 lifetimes to pay down this debt. It’s obvious that this is an absurd debt. This is an amount so massive that no one would ever be able to pay back. Jesus means to blow our minds with it.

The master intends to sell his servant and his entire family into slavery to help collect on the debt owed to him. The practice of selling a person and their family into slavery to pay off a debt was prohibited by the law of Moses. Greek and Roman law allowed for it, but it was rarely practiced. So, Jesus depicts this master as severe in the strongest of terms.

The servant who owed the debt has an absurd response. After falling on his knees in terror because of the punishment the master ordered, the servant says, “Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back” (Matthew 18:26 CEB). Yeah, 60-million days is going to require a little patience. Nevertheless, the severe master surprises everyone with his compassion for his servant. The master’s compassion leads him to forgive this massive debt entirely. This severe master goes far beyond the servant’s request for patience, which leaves us with an inkling, a notion, that maybe the master isn’t as severe as we make him out to be.

The servant walked out of the master’s hall debt-free. And, he happened upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred coins. A hundred coins was still a significant debt for a regular citizen of the empire, but it wasn’t as unreasonable as the 10,000 bags of gold. A silver denarius coin was the average daily wage for a worker, so it would have taken about four months to earn it. It’s a significant-but-manageable debt.

One would think the servant who was forgiven the 10,000 bags of gold would feel relieved and grateful for what he had just experienced. But his treatment of the fellow servant indebted to him shows otherwise. He grabs his fellow servant by the throat and chokes him. The forgiven servant refused to show patience, which was the very thing he had begged the master for a few moments ago. Instead, he acted in exactly the opposite manner of his not-so-severe-after-all master.

The forgiven servant’s response to the graciousness and mercy he had just received from his master was impatience, anger, violence, retribution, and cruelty. The servant proved himself the severe one. He wanted this other servant, not only to feel the same fear he felt before the master forgave him, but to experience that terror and helplessness first-hand. He has his fellow servant thrown into prison until the debt could be paid.

And, of course, his fellow servants are appalled at what they saw. They reported these events to the master, who recalled the servant and said, “’You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt” (Matthew 18:32-34 CEB).

Note that it was the forgiven servant’s behavior toward another who owed him that caused the master to rescind the debt forgiveness. In a way, the master became a mirror to the servant, reflecting the servant’s treatment of others. It makes me wonder if hell isn’t simply a place where we have to stare at our true selves in a mirror. Until we accept who we really are, how can we understand how much debt God is willing to forgive?

The people of the church must recognize how much we have been forgiven. In turn, we must forgive others. If we don’t forgive others, then we risk losing the forgiveness we have already received. When we refuse to forgive others, we are essentially rejecting the mercy of God that we have received.

Matthew’s theology of forgiveness includes the necessity of dishing out what we have received from God. “Forgive us our sins in the same way that we forgive those who are indebted to us” (Matthew 6:12 my translation). The forgiven must forgive. If we don’t, then we nullify the mercy we have already received. So, how do we forgive? First let’s clear up some common misconceptions about forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not—indeed it cannot—ignore the pain of those who have been hurt. If we minimize the pain, whether it’s ours or another’s, then forgiveness can’t happen. If we gloss over the hurt or pretend it really wasn’t that bad, forgiveness can’t happen. Forgiveness requires truth, and truth acknowledges the hurt. Sometimes, forgiveness requires us to speak hard truth to those who hurt us. Forgiveness is never about pretending the woundedness didn’t happen.

Forgiveness does not mean we forget. God might be capable of forgetting but we don’t even know how that works because we, most certainly, are neither capable nor expected to forget. When we forgive someone who hurt us, we don’t magically wipe the experience from our memory. I have forgiven people for hurting me, but you bet your boots I remember what they did. What forgiveness from the heart allowed me to do in every situation was to move past that person so that neither they nor the hurt they caused had power over me. We can only find release from those who hurt us when we forgive them. Forgiveness allow us to let go of our bitterness and resentment. Those things DO have power over us. When we forgive, we no longer hang on to our wounds.

Forgiveness requires us to listen. In my experience, the most difficult thing for any person to do is listen to someone we’ve hurt when they confront us with how we hurt them. We jump immediately to our own defense. We’re quick to brush our guilt aside. In my experience as a pastor, I have seen people rationalize and dismiss their hurtful actions until they felt like they were the victim. They felt like the person they hurt was really the one who hurt them with their… annoying truth. Seeking forgiveness is difficult work, too.

When we forgive, we reflect the grace and mercy God continues to show us. God loves us and wants us to live with joy, and forgiveness helps us move past the pain. None of this means that forgiveness is easy. Forgiving someone who hurt us can be a long and difficult process, especially when the wound is deep, or when it has impacted every aspect of our life and livelihood. Sometimes, it takes the community to help us speak truth to our woundedness so we can work through the difficulties of forgiving the people who hurt us.

Despite the difficulty, God invites and expects the people of the church to forgive because forgiving is what God does. When we dare to work through the difficulty of forgiving others from our heart, we not only find freedom and release on the other side, but our own forgiveness as well.

So, who are the people you still need to forgive?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Without Pretending | Proper 17

Worship Video

Romans 12:9-21

9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic– be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. 20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good. (CEB)

Without Pretending

It is, perhaps, fortuitous that we’re reading from Romans 12 today, because all this stuff going on in our public life begs the question: How do those who claim to follow Jesus Christ live, speak, and act in a world that’s this messed up? And my answer won’t mince words any more than Paul’s did in Romans 12. The Christian Faith is not easy. God has different definitions for what is good, right, pleasing, and mature than what our broader culture has.

There are profound differences between faithfulness and unfaithfulness. Yet, it’s our cultural definitions that have the larger following, and the louder voice. It’s much easier for people to go with the cultural flow than it is to stop and think critically about how our culture distorts the very idea of what is good. I think we need to hear Paul’s imperative in verse 2, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature” (Romans 12:2 CEB). As I said in my sermon last week, that kind of transformation and renewal takes work on our part.

Paul makes the case in Romans 12 that the ethical expectations for those who would claim Jesus Christ as their Lord are profound. Communion with God and with other human beings is the heart of Christian life. Therefore, what we think of others, how we behave toward others, and the way we speak to and about others matter. If, as both John the Baptizer and Jesus suggest, trees are known by their fruit, then the fruit our lives produce is what we need to examine. What does our fruit say about us? Does the way we live really reflect the genuine love that Paul insists we must show?

Paul insists that we show love without pretending. Some translations render this as “Let love be genuine” (NRSV). The word in Greek means without hypocrisy or without acting. Paul then provides some examples of how we show love that isn’t pretend. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it does cover a lot of ground, and it gives us a starting point for reflecting on our own actions—our fruit.

In fact, the Greek construction could also be translated to say, Love without pretending is… what follows.Whether we read these as imperatives or indicatives, Paul describes what genuine love looks like by describing how real love acts.

The first one, “hate evil” can seem odd to hear. But it’s clear that Paul wants us to hate some-thing: and that thing is evil itself. Paul would never suggest that we are allowed to hate people: even people who do evil things. It’s similar to the First General Rule of Methodism, which is, “Doing no harm” (Book of Discipline 2016, p78). Before we can do much good for anyone, we first need to stop doing harm. The word Paul used for hate means to be disgusted or repulsed. When we show love without pretending, we do find evil repulsive. Whatever form evil takes, genuine love cannot be anything but disgusted by it.

When we’re confronted by the evil of injustice, love compels us to seek justice. When confronted by the evil of oppression, love seeks relief, release, and restoration. When confronted by the evil of violence, love seeks nonviolence. When confronted by the evil or war, love seeks peace. When confronted by the evil of poverty, love seeks to share and show generosity to meet human needs. When confronted by the evil of inequality, love seeks equality and egalitarianism. Every time we encounter evil, if we’re showing real, genuine love, then our response is always the opposite, to move in the other direction, to be repulsed and work to counteract it.

When those who love are repulsed by evil, our revulsion causes us to turn away from it to what’s good. This is the Second General Rule of Methodism, which is, “Doing good” (Book of Discipline 2016, p79). Paul tells us that to show love without pretending we must cling to what is good and hold on to it with all our might. We cling to good by getting busy and working to achieve the good that love wants to see until that good becomes reality. Love clings to goodness even when it feels like it might slip right out of our grip, like we might never accomplish it, even when it hurts. Love compels us to hold on to what is good because that’s what real love does. Genuine love isn’t afraid to bleed a little for the sake of what is good.

Genuine love also builds us into a community where we love each other with the affection of family members. That’s how God’s reconciling love works. If there’s one thing I know about family, it’s that we’re really good at being in each other’s business. But that’s what people who really love each other do. Our genuine love for each other makes us want to get involved in each other’s lives. My family members know things about me that I need them to know to help me survive. They can even read the signs of when I’m stressed out or angry or sad, and they know how to respond in ways that are appropriate for me. They know what I need, and I, in turn, know what they need. And we want to meet each other’s needs because we love each other.

Now, we don’t always get it right. In my family, we lose patience with each other. We have arguments and disagreements. I get mad when I step bare-footed on a LEGO in the dark and threaten to throw every toy in the house into the trash. But when my jets cool, we apologize and do the work of reconciliation. At the end and at the beginning of every day, we are still a family. We try to show each other the kind of affection that we know we need because that’s what members of a family who love each other do. Paul wants us to love each other like that. The idea is all at once frightening and powerful. It requires us to trust and open ourselves to others that can make us feel vulnerable. But genuine love builds us into a community that acts toward each other with the love of family.

If we’re to show love without pretending, then we also strive to be the best at showing honor to each other. In the Roman world—heck, in our world—the goal of people then and now is to surpass others in gaining honor for ourselves. It’s expected that we do whatever we can to edge others out. But showing real love for others means we set our selfishness aside for the sake of each other. Showing real love to others means we seek what’s good for them; we show respect and honor, and we offer support so they can achieve.

When we really love someone, we want to express it. We want to show it. We want to make it known. Genuine love acts with enthusiasm not laziness. When my daughter, Charlotte, wants you to know how much she loves you, she will spend time crafting the perfect card just for you. She might even redo it a few times, but by golly she’s going to get it right because she knows that you need to know that she loves you. Genuine love is enthusiastic, isn’t it? To show love without pretending means we want others to know that we love them, and we’re going to do whatever we can to make sure our love for others is known, seen, and experienced.

To show love without pretending means that we burn hot in the Spirit as we serve the Lord. Our hearts are on fire for others. Serving the Lord energizes those who really love. That doesn’t mean we never get tired (believe me, I get tired), but when we love, we find that serving God is life-giving in so many ways. And how can we not want more?

To show love without pretending means that we rejoice in hope. The hope we have in God’s promises through Jesus Christ are a source of rejoicing for those who love. How can it not be? By God’s grace and mercy we have been reconciled to God and to each other. That’s what God’s love does. Because of God’s love, we have hope for ourselves and for the world. As messed up as everything is, we can have hope that God will fix even this.

Genuine love endures in difficulty. Stuff happens in life. Difficult times and circumstances are a part of what we inevitably experience. But those difficulties don’t stop us from showing love to others. Love endures through the difficulty. If anything, the difficulties we face compels us to be even more enthusiastic about showing love to others.

To show love without pretending, we persist in prayer. A speaker at a University of Findlay Campus Ministry function told us about a time when she volunteered with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. One thing she noticed was that the sisters stopped to pray several times a day. So, she asked Mother Teresa, “How do you ever get anything done if you’re always stopping to pray?” and Mother Teresa replied, “How could we ever do this work if we did not stop to pray?” Prayer connects us to God in a profound way. Prayer centers us, re-energizes us, empowers us, and allows us to share with God our concerns and worries for others. Prayer gives us strength to do the hard and heart-breaking work of ministry.

To show love genuine love means that we contribute to the needs of God’s people and we are quick to provide hospitality to strangers. This is two-pronged. We take care of our own and we take care of those who are not a part of our community of faith. Love does not know boundaries. Love does not stop at any door. Generosity is an expression of genuine love.

Paul also provides guidance for how we ought to act and think in solidarity with others. We share in each other’s joys because, when we love someone, their joy becomes ours. We share in each other’s sorrows because, when we love someone, their sorrow becomes our sorrow. Paul reminds us again, as he did in verse 3, that we ought not think we’re better than anyone else. We should think of everyone else as our equals and “associate with people who have no status” (Romans 12:16b CEB). I like the way The Jerusalem Bible renders this: “never be condescending but make real friends with the poor” (Romans 12:16b TJB 1966).

This is a call for solidarity with people whom the world rejects as worthless. Genuine love sees worth in everyone, regardless of any discriminating factor or category. Love, in fact, seeks to enter into community with everyone the same way that God has sought to enter into community with us.

Paul then insists that genuine love can only be expressed in peaceful ways. Christians do not seek revenge, because revenge comes from hate not love. When evil is done to us, even our enemies should be able to see that our response to what they’ve done to us is good and loving. Revenge is easy. Loving our enemies and praying for those who harass us is difficult. But this is what it means to show genuine love. Paul quotes from Proverbs 25:21-22 when he tells us how to respond to enemies: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21 CEB).

When we give in to hate, we have already been defeated by evil. The standards to which God calls us are high, indeed. And it is not easy. Paul knew that. But Paul also knew that followers of Jesus Christ must love the way God loves. Christians must pattern our lives and the way we love after Jesus Christ. This is tough stuff. It’s counter-cultural and radical stuff. But this is the kind of transformed life that God requires.

Still, let’s be honest. We are all going to fail at showing genuine love from time to time. But God’s mercy and grace abound. And we are not alone. We have the Holy Spirit, and we have each other as a community of support and mutual care. If we’re to defeat evil with good, if we’re to show genuine love to others, then we need each other. And that, I think, is a profound gift from God, too: our community of faith.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Be Transformed | Proper 16

Worship Video:

Romans 12:1-8

1 So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is– what is good and pleasing and mature.

 3 Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. 4 We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. 5 In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. 6 We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. 7 If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. 8 If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful. (CEB)

Be Transformed

I think it’s safe to say that wishful thinking never made anyone a true follower of Jesus Christ. The discernment of God’s will, of what God finds holy and pleasing, takes work on our part both individually and collectively. Yet, there is such a thing as lazy discipleship. There are people who claim Jesus as their Lord but who do not bother to put in the work of figuring out what it takes to put that claim into practice. There are those who would rather conform than be transformed. That’s why Paul addressed it. Paul didn’t write his letters to the church in a vacuum; he wrote because he was dealing with real-life stuff. The church struggled with authenticity from the get-go, and we still do.

Paul’s argument in the first eleven chapters of Romans centers on God’s righteousness. God’s righteousness, not our own, is what matters. God is the measuring stick of righteousness, not us. We participate in God’s righteousness because of God’s grace. God chose us. God desires to include us. God has made a way to save all people no matter who we are or where we’re from.

Paul then shifts his argument in chapter 12 to describe how the faithful live life that is oriented toward God and God’s future as opposed to the patterns of this present age and this world. If our minds are stuck here in this age, then we won’t be able to imagine God’s new reality in the age that’s coming.

Because of God’s mercies, which Paul discussed in those previous chapters, Paul encourages us to present ourselves as living sacrifices. But what does it mean to present ourselves as living sacrifices? The Jewish concept of sacrifice as something good is pretty far-removed from our culture. That alone makes it difficult to understand what Paul wants us to hear.

The difficulty with living sacrifices is that they’re always trying to crawl off the altar. For us, sacrifice is always negative. Parents—more often mothers—sacrifice career advancement, earning potential, and (as often judged by the world) as sense of self-worth to have children. Workers sacrifice time with their family to put extra hours in at work. Students sacrifice entire evenings of free time to get their homework done. Athletes sacrifice weekends for the sake of the team (Kara was at marching band practice for over eight hours yesterday). Employees sacrifice raises and other benefits when the economy tanks. Sacrifice means we lose something or give it up.

So, when Paul encourages us to present ourselves as living sacrifices, it can sound to us like he wants us to give up even more. We can start to think, What source of happiness do I have to cut out of my life now? But the call to present ourselves as living sacrifices was a positive thing for Paul. It does not require us to give up happiness for drudgery.

What Paul calls for is full dedication to God. Paul encourages the kind of dedication that looks to God for what is right, holy, and pleasing instead of listening to what the world says and, perhaps more importantly, instead of listening to what the world fears. Fear leads to all manner of violence and oppression. When we fear someone (or a group of someones) the world believes we have permission to mistreat them, and our mistreatment of others gets rationalized as protecting ourselves.

It isn’t always easy to articulate an authentic Christian point of view in a world that’s dominated by pseudo-Christian ideologies, economics-first mentalities, fear-filled us-against-them mindsets, and national politics that try and often succeed at masking themselves as God-approved.

Somewhere along the way, the water gets muddied enough that we can have difficulty discerning which beliefs and actions are of the world, and which beliefs and actions are in line with the teaching of Jesus Christ. But muddiness usually happens when we pay attention to the patterns of the world and conform to this present age instead of seeking God’s will and what God has already declared is good and pleasing and mature.

We know the patterns of this world. We see them every day. The strong prey on the weak. The fearful attack those who are different from themselves. Money and economic gain matter more than people. The wealthy receive preferential treatment over the poor. The powerful abuse their power to commit brutality against those without it so they can stay in power. The good of the community is destroyed by the selfish greed of the individual.

The conformist mindsets of the world try to dehumanize and tear down. But those whose minds have been transformed and renewed by God’s mercy and grace must build up and say that these, too, are beloved of God, lovingly made in the very image of the creator, and they are worthy of our concern.

Whatever we personally think about a person’s lifestyle or situation doesn’t matter. Those hang-ups are our issues. What matters is how we love. Can we not love someone even if we don’t understand them? Can we not show empathy for and walk alongside people we don’t understand? If we dare to do so, then understanding will come with the work of serving. Ministry has a wonderful way of humanizing people and renewing our minds to God’s will. Not necessarily what we think God’s will ought to be for others, but God’s will for us: God’s will for the way we love and serve in a broken and hurting world.

God’s will for human life is different from the patterns of the world. God calls us to love others, to discover joy in each other, to promote peace among all others, to practice patience with those whom we don’t understand, to show kindness toward strangers and family alike, to live in faithfulness to our divine calling, to act with gentleness toward the weak and vulnerable, and to exhibit self-control when things get frustrating (c.f. Galatians 5:22-23).

Paul invites us to orient ourselves to God and God’s future, not to the world and the present age. It’s easy to get lost in the destructive patterns of this world when we aren’t oriented toward God; when we aren’t seeking for God to renew our minds. Transformation and renewal of our minds happens when we find that balance between God’s mercies and our initiative.

This is a very Wesleyan idea. We get to cooperate with God in our own spiritual transformation. God’s grace is available, always and to everyone, but we have to accept its potential to work in our lives. We have to pull down our walls and let God in. We have to present ourselves as living sacrifices who dedicate ourselves to holy service. We have to look to what God finds good and pleasing and mature. We have to allow God to change our minds from the world’s truth to God’s truth. We orient ourselves, in part, by getting out of our own way so that we can discern God’s will. That requires intentionality and effort on our part.

In Martin Luther King Jr’s book, Why We Can’t Wait, he wrote, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes and goes through the tireless efforts of men [and women] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right” (Why We Can’t Wait, Signet Classic, p74).

Transformation requires the Spirit, yet transformation only happens when God’s grace and human initiative collide. It takes both. We have to cooperate with God. The renewing of our minds to discern God’s will requires us to look toward the Holy instead of the things of this age.

God allows us the grace of cooperation with God’s will and initiatives. Whether it is an action, a decision, a political policy or ideology, a social movement, or something else, by God’s mercy we can look to God because God’s love and grace do point the way. When we look to God to renew our minds, and when we cooperate with God to use our gifts for the sake of community and in service to the good news of God’s salvation, we keep from getting lost in the patterns of this world.

One practical thing we can do to help us discern any matter is prayerful self-reflection. We can simply ask ourselves what’s behind the thought or feeling we’re experiencing in the moment. Is love behind it, or does it come from fear? Does it tear families apart or does it show mercy to those in need? Does it exclude people because of some distinguishing category, or does it recognize that every person is made in the image of God? Is peace behind it, or does it come from a desire to harm or even to withhold good? (You see, the world’s way of thinking can be sneaky. To withhold good might appear innocent, but to withhold good is to cause harm).

Matters of justice and righteousness are matters of faith because justice and righteousness matter to God. Those who have presented their bodies as living sacrifices are called to love. And a little prayer-filled self-reflection can help us avoid conformity to the patterns of this world. If we want to live into God’s future, then we need the transformation God wants to see in us, we need our minds renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit. When it comes to the patterns of this world and this age, God wants a non-conformist church.

But how each individual and congregation of the church functions can look very different from each other. Faith communities are made up of very different people with very different gifts. We are many parts of one body in Christ, but not all parts have the same function. So the first thing Paul does is gently insist that we don’t think too highly of ourselves. We should be reasonable since all of this is based on God’s righteousness, not our own.

No matter our Spiritual gift, our depth of faith, our station in life, or any other distinguishing characteristic, Paul makes it clear that we belong to each other. We are part of the same body. Whatever our gift might be, however we might serve Christ in the world, Paul tells us to devote ourselves to it.

In fact, our Spiritual gifts are tied to how we present ourselves as living sacrifices, and that presentation of ourselves to God leads to the renewal of our minds. When we use our gifts in priestly service to God, how can we not find our minds transformed into a new way of thinking? And not only thinking, but a new way of living, relating, acting, and loving that stands in contrast to the world.

When we live into God’s will for the human race now by living into the reality of God’s future, the patterns of this world no longer have power over us. Instead, we’re free to live in ways that are good and pleasing and mature, and our lives produce the fruit of the Spirit. God builds different people into vibrant community when we dare to present ourselves as living sacrifices and dedicate ourselves to this level of priestly service of God.

God has already offered the invitation and the grace to empower us. God always prepares the way. And as always, the next move is ours.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Wednesday Update: 19 August 2020

Greetings! I hope and pray this letter finds you well!

On one hand, I have to admit that it’s hard to believe we’re more than halfway through August. Advent is only 14 weeks away. Christmas is only 17 weeks away (you’re welcome for that). Including today there are only 135 days left in the calendar year.

On the other hand, I think most of us are ready to offer a permanent good riddance to 2020. Yet, 2020 has made us learn new ways of being the church and living in community with each other. We’ve had to change how we connect with each other. We’ve had to adjust in innumerable ways. Some of us have had to learn new skills, even *gasp* join a social media platform.

But we’re doing it. We’re finding a way forward together through the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve found ways to continue to serve in mission and ministry to our community. We’ve continued to give in support of our congregation (you can now give electronically through the church website). We’ve found ways to worship aside from gathering in person. (My family uses the YouTube app on our television and participates in worship from our living room).

We’re also still being the church at the district and conference levels. I returned from Annual Conference on Sunday afternoon. You can read the conference summary here (https://www.inumc.org/annual-conference-news/annual-conference-summary-2/). Or you can read my shorter update below.

Annual Conference

At least half of another Annual Conference is in the books. The other half of the 2020 Annual Conference will take place on October 10. That meeting is scheduled to be held at Saint Luke’s UMC in Indianapolis, but it may also take place virtually.

At least on the business side of things, there really isn’t much to tell. We covered a limited amount of business on Saturday morning, only voting on 11 or so motions. The finances of the conference have been impacted severely, and several positions at the conference office and in district offices have been cut. That’s why it’s so important for our congregation to give our full tithe to the conference and pay our district apportionments. (FYI: As of July’s budget report, we have met our broader United Methodist Church obligations through the end of June).

The celebration of ministry service was held in the afternoon. We honored 57 retirees, commissioned four Deacons and nine Elders as Probationary Members of the Annual Conference, ordained one Deacon and twelve Elders in Full Connection with the Annual Conference, and recognized two Associate Members of the Annual Conference. It was exciting for me to see the last of my eight Residence in Ministry mentees be ordained as an Elder alongside the Rev. Ed McCutchan. Ed is currently appointed to Howe UMC and Pretty Prairie UMC.

If you’d like to send Ed a congratulatory note or card, you can use the following address:

The Rev. Ed McCutchan
PO Box 206
Howe, IN 46746-0206

In other news, I’m glad to announce that Ricky Simpson and I have both been appointed to serve First UMC for another year. I’ve entered my sixth year as your lead pastor (July 2015), and Ricky has started his third as your associate pastor (June 2018).

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Our secretary, Cadie, is in the office Monday-Friday from 8:00 a.m. to Noon. You can also contact her by email: cadie@firstumcmv.com.

The best way to contact me or Ricky is by email or cell phone (my church voicemail is a little glitchy). You can use the “Staff” link on the church website to send an email to whichever staff person you want to reach (click the “Send Email” button on the staff-person’s info page).

May God bless you and keep you always.

Best regards,
Rev. Christopher Millay
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www.firstumcmv.com

Those Who Bring | Proper 14

Romans 10:5-15

5 Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the Law: The person who does these things will live by them. 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith talks like this: Don’t say in your heart, “Who will go up into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or “Who will go down into the region below?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach). 9 Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. 11 The scripture says, All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame. 12 There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him. 13 All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.

14 So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news. (CEB)

Those Who Bring

Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in order to introduce himself and his message of God’s good news to a local community he’d never visited before. While he knew several of the people in the house-churches (in fact, he greets a few by name), most of the Roman Christians were strangers to Paul. There were Gentile and Jewish Christians in Rome. The letter to the Romans addresses big questions about God’s purposes for Israel, for Gentiles and the human race as a whole, and for all of creation.

One of the points of his argument in our text was to help us understand the concept of righteousness. Since the days of Moses, Israel has understood righteousness as keeping the law. Paul points this out by quoting from Leviticus 18:5, where God said to Moses, “You must keep my rules and my regulations; by doing them one will live; I am the LORD” (CEB). That particular understanding of righteousness is defined by adhering to the law. If you obey the law, then you are righteous. If you do not obey the law, then you are not righteous.

It helps to back up a few verses to see what Paul said immediately before verse 5. Paul wrote about his people, the Jews, “I can vouch for them: they are enthusiastic about God. However, it isn’t informed by knowledge. They don’t submit to God’s righteousness because they don’t understand his righteousness, and they try to establish their own righteousness” (Romans 10:2-3 CEB). Now, how can Paul, who is himself a Jew, say that his people are not informed by knowledge about God? Further, how can he say that his people don’t understand God’s righteousness?

Surely Paul’s fellow Jews, above all other peoples of the earth, knew God’s saving power! They celebrated God’s saving power in their festivals. The entirety of their lives revolved around the knowledge that God chose them, that God rescued them over and over throughout their existence. To this day, Jews know and celebrate God’s saving power. It’s part of the Jewish identity. So, what does Paul mean here?

I think Paul is speaking from his own experience as a Jew and as a Pharisee. What Paul knew before his conversion experience when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus was that Israel understood their claim to righteousness as something that belonged exclusively to them. No other people had access to it. No other people could rightly claim it. Paul knew the Jewish theological mindset of his day because, before Jesus appeared to him, Paul shared it.

What Paul claims that his people sought to “establish” was nothing less than what God had already given to them. Paul’s criticism of his people is a criticism of a view that he, himself, once held. Namely, that his people insisted that God’s righteousness and God’s salvation were for Jews only. Paul strongly disagreed with the notion that observance of the law set his people apart and established a righteousness that was their own.

This was a criticism Paul had of some early Christians, too. The first people to accept Jesus as the Messiah were Jews, and some of those Jewish Christians insisted that the only way for Gentiles to be saved was for them to first become Jews. They believed that God’s grace only extended to Israel so, naturally, Gentiles had to become Jews before they could claim any part of the Jewish Messiah. God’s salvation was for Israel only.

So, Paul was not suggesting that his fellow Jews didn’t understand anything about God’s righteousness. He knew very well that they did. Rather, Paul argued that his fellow Jews had failed to grasp the full scope of God’s righteousness. While his fellow Jews celebrated Abraham’s faith which God recognized as righteousness, Paul points out a glaring disconnection: that righteousness is from faith, not from following the law. The law doesn’t make a person righteous. Abraham lived before the law existed, and Abraham’s righteousness came from his faith in God. From the beginning of righteousness itself, righteousness has come from faith in God. It always has and always will.

The righteousness of God was never meant to be exclusive to any particular people. God declared that all the nations of the earth would be blessed because of Abraham and Abraham’s descendants (c.f. Genesis 18:18, 22:18). The blessing of God was for all people. Righteousness through faith in God was always meant for all people. So, by seeking to establish righteousness as something that was exclusively Jewish, Paul argued that his people were actually pitting themselves against the nature, character, and purpose of God’s righteousness.

So, when Paul wrote, “Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the Law: The person who does these things will live by them” (Romans 10:5 CEB), he’s pointing out how his fellow Jews interpreted that text. He’s not pitting Scripture against Scripture. Rather, Paul argues against a particular interpretation of the Leviticus 18:5 text. He resolves the interpretation problem by providing an interpretation of Deuteronomy 30:12-14. That text reminded the people that the way to righteousness wasn’t difficult or far away. No one needs to set out on a spiritual quest to the heavens or to the depths of the abyss to find it. “But what does it say?” Paul wrote. “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach)” (Romans 10:8 CEB).

Just as the word of the law was near, easily recited, and easily understood, so is the message that Paul preached. Paul’s message was of faith in Jesus Christ. God sent Jesus to reveal that all peoples may have access to God’s righteousness through faith. God is always the one who declares us righteous. Righteousness is never our own apart from God. God has always made God’s righteousness available through faith. And God’s righteousness is available to everyone no matter their ancestry. Jesus Christ has now become the focal point of our faith and the fulfillment of the law.

Christ has, in fact, fulfilled the function of the law, which was to reconcile human beings to God. The giving of the law was an act of love by God. It allowed an entire people to walk with God so that the rest of the human race might learn of God’s willingness to save everyone. And the law still plays a role in Christian life. Christ fulfills the law, but Christ did not end the law. We still pay attention to what the law says, and our faith in God is deeper because we have the law. Paul wrote, “So the Law itself is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good” (Romans 7:12 CEB).

Yet, Paul insists that faith takes precedence over everything. It’s actually similar to an old argument, so to speak, within Judaism. The role of the priesthood was to make sure the law was followed and to provide a way to repair things through sacrifice when the law was broken. The prophets argued that following the law didn’t matter if those who observed it were only going through the motions with no real love for or trust of God in their heart. Even with the law, the prophets insisted that faith was necessary; love of God was necessary. And they still are now that Christ has come. The righteous live their faith authentically by loving God and loving others. Faith exhibits itself in right living, which is defined by love and the fruit of the Spirit (c.f. Galatians 5:22-23; Ephesians 5:9; Philippians 1:11; Colossians 1:6-12).

Salvation isn’t based on the law, Paul argues, but on faith. We might ask what Paul means by saying, “Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation” (Romans 10:9-10 CEB). I think he’s describing faith that is, again, authentic. Faith is at once inward and outward. Faith is inside of us, it’s something we hold to in our hearts and minds. And faith impels us to reach out in loving concern to others around us. To bear Godly fruit in our living.

In Christ we no longer have to pay attention to who we think is “in” and who we think ought to be “out.” God has made righteousness available to everyone. This new word of salvation is for everyone. It’s not exclusive to Israel. That, Paul argues, is where his fellow Jews have missed the point. God’s righteousness, mercy, grace, salvation, and gift of faith don’t depend upon one’s ancestry or race. Paul insists that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek because the same Lord is Lord of all and gives richly to all who call on God. What matters is Christ, and those who have faith in God will not be put to shame (c.f. Isaiah 28:16).

Do we grasp the meaning of this radical inclusion? For the church, it means we don’t build walls to keep people out. Rather, we break down barriers. We know that if God has made room for us, then God has made room for everyone. We know God as the one who calls all people, claims all people, redeems all people, and loves all people. God’s love for the human race and desire to heal and save are infinite. That’s the message of God’s righteousness that Paul declares in Christ. This is the good news. In Christ, God has made room for everyone and, “All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved” (Romans 10:13 CEB; c.f. Joel 2:32).

Lastly, we get to the scary part of this text (at least for many Christians). Paul gets into the dreaded word, evangelism. But evangelism really ought not be so scary. Evangelism isn’t only for preachers and teachers. Evangelism is for every Christian. It’s not that we have to convince people of the rightness of our doctrine, our liturgy, our preferred style of worship, or the kinds of songs we like to sing. Evangelism is simply introducing people to Jesus, and that can happen in any number of ways. Sometimes we do that by talking with people, sometimes we do that by mission work.

When we embody the word of God’s righteousness for all in such a way that we express it in our deeds, that’s authentic faith. Authentic faith becomes a very real, very active kind of evangelism. When our confession and our actions agree, people take notice. In fact, my experience shows that people notice our faithful actions long before they find out about our confession of faith. They can see it in the way we live, the way we talk, and the way we treat others.

We who believe become messengers of the good news. We are sent, and that’s a privilege. Those who received this gift now get to pass it on so others can receive it, too. In a way, we can imagine how beautiful this is for those to whom we might be sent. And how beautiful it might be for us that we should get to share this good news. But I think the deeper beauty for all of us is that God is and has always been God’s own messenger of salvation to us. That’s how profoundly God loves us. God chooses to be God With Us every day. And there is beauty everywhere we look when we participate in God’s work.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Wrestling with God | Proper 13

Genesis 32:22-31

22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”

29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh. (CEB)

Wrestling with God

I have to admit that this text is not an easy text to preach on. One thing that makes preaching on this text difficult is its connectedness to what comes before it and what follows it. This particular part of the story of Jacob is critical to the entire story of Jacob: from the time he was still in his mother Rebekah’s womb to the end of his life. It’s not a stand-alone event that can be separated from everything else. This text is in-between the two appearances of God at Bethel in Genesis 28 and 35. So, just as God met Jacob when he fled the Promised Land, so God meets Jacob as he returns. And once again, the anger of Esau is on Jacob’s mind.

There are all kinds of interesting tidbits dangled before us in this story’s text. There’s a lot of word play in the Hebrew that’s completely lost in the English translation. Words like Jacob (יַעֲקֹ֖ב)[yaqob], Jabbok (יַבֹּֽק)[yabboq, wrestle (אָבֵ֥ק)[avaq], and struggle, strive, contend (from sara – שְׂרָה which is the name of Jacob’s grandmother and one of the two root words that make up the name Israel). The word play helps tie things in the story together.

Another reason this text is difficult is because its meaning is elusive. It’s been interpreted in a broad variety of ways by scholars, pastors, and commentators across the centuries. It’s one of the most interpreted texts in the Old Testament. Some of those interpretations are credible and others are less so.

One of the major interpretation issues has to do with the identity and nature of the person with whom Jacob wrestles all night long. Different interpreters have suggested that Jacob’s opponent is God, an angel, a man (maybe even a thief who sneaks up on Jacob in the dark of night).

Some assume that the story was borrowed from an even more ancient legend and have suggested that the person was originally a river demon of the Jabbok River. The Jewish sages of the Midrash suggest that the person is the spirit of Jacob’s brother, Esau. Others say that it was just another dream of Jacob’s (after all, he’s had interesting dreams before), or it’s all a metaphorical dark night of the soul where Jacob wrestles with his own sense of aloneness in a moment of spiritual crisis.

Origen, who lived in the second and third centuries, couldn’t imagine that God would wrestle against Jacob, and came up with the interpretation that God must have been wrestling with Jacob, as in alongside Jacob against some assailant. It isn’t just scholars, sages, and Bible nerds like me who try to identify this adversary. Everyone seems to have their own idea of who this wrestler is.

I think it’s best to look at the text for clues. For Jacob’s opponent, the Hebrew text uses the word אִישׁ (ish) in verse 24 (vs.25 in Hebrew text), which is a man. But Jacob also identifies this man as God. Jacob calls the place where they wrestled Peniel, which means face of God because he believes he has seen God face to face. Some suggest that Jacob is simply mistaken in what he thinks he saw; that he didn’t really see God. But I think that a guy who has already seen God once probably knows what he sees, even in the darkness of night. Jacob believed he had seen God; that this wrestler was God.

I think that the wrestler whom Jacob faced was God: a physical manifestation of God who has somehow graciously limited God’s self in order to meet Jacob where he is and on equal terms. God has stooped down to Jacob’s level for this encounter. O, many commentators like to suggest that at any moment God could have overwhelmed Jacob if God had chosen to do so. Some people feel the need to protect the idea that God is all-powerful and immutable (as if God needed our protection). But there’s really no indication of this in the text. God wasn’t playing games with Jacob, like Fezzik the Giant fighting The-Man-In-Black, God actually struggled with him. And it turned out that Jacob was equal to the task.

And why should we be surprised? Jacob had always been a wrestler. When Rebekah was pregnant with the twin boys, Esau and Jacob, we’re told, “The children struggled together within her” (Genesis 25:22). And when Esau was born first, we’re then told, “Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob” (Genesis 25:26). And of course, Jacob’s name can mean, heel gripper or supplanter, both of which proved true in his life. Jacob had always been a wrestler, a struggler, a contender, a person who was always at odds with someone, even his own children later in life.

So, when God shows up as a wrestler to struggle with Jacob, Jacob managed to hold his own. Even when God saw that he wasn’t winning and decided to knock Jacob’s hip out of joint, Jacob hung on, he wouldn’t let go, he wouldn’t give up the struggle!

But then the sun began to rise, and God the wrestler said to Jacob, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” You see, Jacob has been wrestling with God at night, in the dark, where Jacob couldn’t see God’s face clearly. But if the sun comes up and Jacob sees the face of God, there’s a problem. No one can see God’s face and live. If Jacob continued to hang on and see God in the full light, it might be the end of him.

But Jacob continued to hang on and said he wouldn’t let go until God blessed him. Jacob had already been wounded in the struggle, but now he showed that he was willing to risk death for the sake of receiving the divine blessing.

So, Jacob received the new name Israel, one who contends with God. The name itself set up the relationship between God and Jacob, but it also set up the relationship between God and the nation who would bear that new name. In many ways I think it also set up the relationship between God and us.

It’s through the struggle and woundedness from that struggle that made Jacob stronger. His wound that caused him to limp for the rest of his life doesn’t show us that Jacob failed, that he lost the fight, or that he was somehow less whole. On the contrary, his limping revealed that Jacob had grown, that he was stronger, more whole, more complete. Jacob’s wound signified his success, not his defeat or failure. He had struggled with God and prevailed.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returned to Ithica limping and leaning on a staff. His state didn’t suggest that Odysseus had failed, but that he had struggled against the gods themselves and prevailed!

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Kirk argued with McCoy about Sybok by saying, “I know my weaknesses, I don’t need Sybok to take me on a tour of them. Bones, you’re a doctor, you know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. We lose them, we lose our selves. I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain!”

In Αἰσχύλος (Aiskulos’s) play Agamemnon, he wrote,

“Wisdom comes through suffering.

Trouble, with its memories of pain,

Drips in our hearts as we try to sleep,

So, men against their will

Learn to practice moderation.

Favors come to us from gods.”

This idea of growth and maturity through struggle isn’t new. Jacob did gain a victory, and he limped every day after to show others—as well as himself—that there are no untroubled victories. Jacob may have been wounded, but he was blessed.

Our own struggles do the same for us. It’s through our wrestling that we learn and grow. We all have wounds from our wrestling with God. And our wounds signify our success, not our failure or defeat. Sometimes our Christian faith feels like a wrestling match between belief and doubt. There are times when we’ve wrestled with God.

I would wager that none of us can say that our Christian journey has been a cakewalk. None of us can say that we’ve never struggled with anything. We’ve all wrestled, struggled, and argued with God over many things. We’ve all experienced moments of vulnerability, loneliness, doubt, and pain. But it’s at those moments of our deepest vulnerability where God enters into the very depths of the struggle, binding God’s own self to us. When it comes to our own struggles, we can count on God to mix it up with us, challenge us, convict us, evaluate us, judge us, and remind us with each limp we take just how much we can face because God is with us.

You know, it’s interesting that we’re never told that Jacob let go of God, or that the wrestling match ended, or even that God left Jacob. Jacob limped away from Peniel, but he did so knowing that God was with him in such a way that he could face any obstacle. We’re never told that they let go of each other. The story simply moves on right into the confrontation with Esau in chapter 33.

In some sense this means that God and Jacob remain bound to each other, facing the future together. I think maybe Saint Paul put it best when he wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Being a Christian isn’t always easy. Sometimes we have to fight and contend and wrestle our way through it. We do wrestle with our faith and with the world around us. But God is a wrestler too, and God comes to us and meets us where we are. And we can count on God to face the future with us the rest of the way through.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay